Our daughter would have celebrated her high school graduation last week.
Instead, what formal ceremonies to mark the occasion will be limited to a small service next week with family at the high school, and this past Sunday, when she donned her cap and gown to walk across the church parking lot during an outdoor service. There were horn honks instead of applause.
She is fine with all of this. Our little girl has been through quite a lot in her short life, resulting in a heart that is ever bent toward the hurts and needs of others. A pandemic? Doesn’t phase her.
But even as our daughter doesn’t considered herself cheated in any way by what’s taken place in the past two months, I can’t say the same for her father. Last year, the high school principal asked if I would be available to speak at their 2020 graduation. I told him the honor would be mine. Whether things would have worked out that way is something I’ll never know, but I like to think they would. After all, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to speak on one of their child’s biggest days?
Since that day has come and gone in a way that’s wholly different than anyone imagined, I thought I’d post something here. Whether these would have been the words I gave to my daughter and her graduating class, I don’t know. Likely it would have been something completely different. Regardless, this is what I’m thinking about on this warm but cloudy May morning with the dog snoozing beside me and the creek singing past my upstairs window:
I had to wonder why when I was asked to give this speech.
Why me, considering that in my time here, I was little more than a jock with a C average. What could someone like me offer in the way of wisdom to the class of 2020?
I’ll admit that I don’t know that answer. I don’t know much, actually. But I do know what makes a good story, and I think that sort of knowledge is well-suited for the few minutes I have with each of you today. Because whether you believe it or not, whether you accept it or not, right now you are all living out your own story.
And my advice to you is simple: make your story a good one.
But how? I’ll tell you how.
Many novelists, myself included, hold to a theory called the hero’s journey, which was conceived in 1949 by a mythologist and literature professor named Joseph Campbell. The idea is a simple one on the surface: every great myth and every great hero, from Gilgamesh to Moses to Bilbo Baggins, no matter how different they are, follow the same steps along the same path of life.
Campbell named 17 stages of the hero’s journey. For the sake of time and your attention, I’m going to limit those to the high points. I want to give you a guide of sorts to go by, because your lives have changed dramatically over the past few months. In many ways, they’re going to change even more over the next few years. It’s going to be easy to get lost along the way. Easy to start doubting, whether it’s yourself or your place in the world. It’s important to know the dangers waiting for you out there, and the hurts that are coming. Most important of all, you have to know the rewards waiting if you endure.
The hero begins in what Campbell called the Ordinary World. It’s the world you’ve always known, the world of your everyday. You’re in that world right now, but you won’t be for long, because you are about to start your own journey by moving to the next step — the Call to Adventure.
That step for you begins right now. The diploma in your hand is a key to unlock a door moving you deeper into a world filled with as much fear as possibility. There are wonders out there beyond any you realize, and there are also terrors you cannot fathom.
These first two stages, the ordinary world and the call to adventure, are the same for everyone. Hero and coward, victor and vanquished, the remembered and the forgotten, all face these two phases of life. The difference between them begins at the next stage, which is the Refusal of the Call.
Along with the talents you possess and the dreams you have come worries that any of it matters in the end, and doubts that you can ever achieve the goals you’ve set. You think, “I can’t do this. It’ll never work. I’m nothing, and I’ll always be nothing.”
That inward battle between doubt and faith, despair and hope, is one you will fight for the rest of your life. And right here is where the hero’s journey ends for most.
But while the ordinary person allows him or herself to be consumed by doubt and fear, the hero understands that in order to do great things, doubt and fear must be fought with faith and courage.
The ordinary person refuses the call to adventure and remains forever an ordinary person. The hero, however, doesn’t let fear and doubt take hold. That means you have to answer the call to adventure laid out here this afternoon. It means you don’t take this piece of paper home and shove it into a drawer. Look at it. Cherish it. Understand what it means.
Do that, and you’ll enter the next stage, Crossing the Threshold. The hero moves from the ordinary world into a world that’s more beautiful but filled with more danger than anything known before.
You’ll find that world soon enough, when you trade high school for college. You’ll find that world again, when you trade college for adulthood. Like all heroes, what you do once you cross the threshold will determine the course of your life. It will not be
easy going. You’ve discovered that already. You will discover it again. The world has teeth, and those teeth will find you. But without that struggle, life turns meaningless and empty. Without that fight, the hero cannot be made into a hero.
You’ll meet people to help you along the way, the stage called Supernatural Aid, when you’ll find your own Gandalf and your own Obi-Wan. You’ll find friends. Enemies. You’ll find ordeals and trials so difficult that you don’t know how you’re going to come through it whole.
You’re going to want to turn back, give up. You’re going to discover that the greatest enemy you will ever meet is in the one living in your own thoughts, and you’re going to know just how weak you really are.
These, too, are all stages of the hero’s journey. These are the things you must struggle with in order to fulfill your destiny. The things that will nearly break you. The things that will become your own personal dragons.
But that act of becoming, of learning and growing and leading and suffering, leads to the stage called the Reward. The hero is transformed from an ordinary person into the person he or she is meant to become. It’s that degree you want. That job you dream of. It’s the climax, the final and harshest battle, the moment that defines a meaningful life and the worst death possible, the death of dreams, the death that leaves you alive but numb.
If you work hard, if you endure, you’ll find the very treasure that you left your ordinary world to discover.
I’m proof of that.
But then comes one of the most important steps of your hero’s journey: the Road Back. There will come a moment when you must make a choice between your own personal wants and a higher calling. And just like the refusal of the call, some will
choose selfishness and return to their lives as ordinary people. But the hero will always choose the higher calling of placing the good of others above the self.
The last stage is the Return, that day you finally present your changed self to the world. The day you step forward armed with all you’ve learned to bring hope to others. The day when you realize that nothing will ever be the same, when you understand that what is past does not have to define you, and that God put your eyes in front of you so you can see where you’re going, not where you’ve been.
That is the hero’s journey. That is your journey beginning right here. So embrace it. Take it seriously. You understand more than anyone that the world is a mess. The world has always been a mess. There has always been darkness crouching at the door. But in every generation, there have always been lights that shine outward to keep that darkness at bay.
Every one of you today has a decision to make. You can be one of those lights, or you can add to that darkness. Those are the only choices you have.
You can hold this diploma in your hands go back to your lives like nothing’s changed. You can refuse that call and let someone else do the hard work of making the world better. You can be ordinary. That’s fine. The world is filled with good, ordinary people.
Or you can start your own hero’s journey right here, right now. You can understand that you come this way only once. That you have a purpose no one else can fulfill.
There are dragons out there. Slay them. There are monsters in the dark. Stand up to them. There are hurts in the hearts of everyone you meet. Help heal them.
The world needs you. So shine your light. Starting right now.